Dwight Frye

An extremely versatile character actor and originator of several memorable characterizations in the horror film genre, Dwight Frye had a notable theatrical career in the 1920s, moving from juvenile parts to leads before entering film. A favorite actor of Broadway theatrical producer-director Brock Pemberton, he originated the part of “the Son” in his hit 1922 production of Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” Pemberton would continue to employ Frye in Broadway productions throughout the decade. Cast with Bela Lugosi in a 1926 production of “The Devil and the Cheese,” he ultimately appeared in at least two Lugosi films. Despite (or perhaps because of) his memorable, impassioned portrayals of real estate agent-cum-madman Renfield in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) and Fritz the sadistic hunchbacked lab assistant in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), the industry seemed determined to typecast Frye, and his film career would be marked with frustration. The Crime of Doctor Crespi (1935) offered him billing second only to that of villain Erich von Stroheim, but all too soon he was consigned to playing a lackluster array of crazies, spies, red herrings, grasping heirs and bit parts. He occasionally returned to the stage in comedies, musicals, and thrillers such as “Night Must Fall” and a stage version of “Dracula.” Frye was perplexed to find that his versatility in the theatre went unnoticed in Hollywood, where he was relegated to lunatic roles and often had his parts severely cut. Indeed, in Son of Frankenstein (1939) his role was deemed as unnecessary when an abrupt switch was made from Technicolor to black and white after his scenes were shot.

Frye, a devout Christian Scientist, had concealed a heart condition from his friends and family. After the outbreak of WWII, unable to enlist, he worked nights (between films and local theatre productions) as a draftsman for the Lockheed Aircraft Co. An uncanny physical resemblance to then-Secretary of War Newton Baker led his to being signed to a substantial role in Wilson (1944), directed by Henry King, based on the life of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, but Frye succumbed to a heart attack on a crowded bus a few days after being cast while returning home from a movie with his son. He was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.

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